Before he leaves office in January, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin wants to do something bold.
He called a meeting with his staff to discuss ideas, and they came up with a plan that will make the lives of thousands of Vermont prisoners and their families better — just in time for the holidays too.
Gov. Shumlin has decided to let people who are currently in prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana go home as soon as possible.
As part of Shumlin's initiative to introduce a "more sane" drug policy in his state, from now until Christmas, people in Vermont prisons who were convicted of carrying small amounts of marijuana will be able to apply for an official pardon. While the pardons themselves won’t go through until after the holidays, the opportunity to apply is an unexpected and potentially life-changing gift.
In 2013, Vermont passed a decriminalization law that brought the sentence for marijuana possession down to a $200 fine (in most cases) and would no longer result in a criminal record.
"We've got folks who got charged for an ounce or less of marijuana in a different era when we were running a failed war on drugs," the governor told WCAX. "Let's give those folks the opportunity to have a clean record."
"There's some injustice in not having the new rules apply to those who are having their lives held back because of the old rules," Shumlin said.
This is just one more example of the nationwide tipping point we've reached regarding marijuana and the War on Drugs.
28 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it in some form — with eight of those legalizations occurring in 2016.
In a November 2016 interview with Bill Maher, President Obama noted that soon, having a federal law banning marijuana would make no sense. "You now have about a fifth of the country that’s operating under one set of laws, and four-fifths in another," the president said. "I think that we’re going to have to have a more serious conversation about how we are treating marijuana and our drug laws generally."
Many cite marijuana's medical benefits or the potential tax profit as reasons enough to legalize the drug, but one of the biggest reasons is the sheer number of people who are in prison because of it.
Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders go to prison every year. 574,641 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2015 alone, and it costs tens of thousands of dollars a year in taxpayer money to keep them there. Not to mention the fact that a disproportionate number of those prisoners are black and Latino.
In Vermont alone, Governor Shumlin's office is estimating there anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 people currently serving time for low-level marijuana convictions who would now be eligible to apply for a pardon and go home with a clean record.
That's thousands of families who will be reunited and thousands of people who will be able to get jobs, start over, and not have their lives ruined by drug that is legal in more than half the country.